A quiet battle over whether the only free and independent broadcaster on the land mass of China will remain so is intensifying. Over a 77-year span, Hong Kong public radio has dished out a blend of credible news and cultural programming in three languages, served as a link between expatriates and the Hong Kong street, and has gained increasing editorial autonomy and respect in China's most sophisticated city.
Yet that is exactly what bothers influential pro-Beijing forces who wish media to more fully trumpet government policies. Many of them see Radio Television Hong Kong, or "RTHK" as it is popularly known, as an irritant at best and a damaging critic at worst - allowing a broad range of opinion, including mild satire and programs that may challenge official proposals, all at taxpayer expense.
The basic issue: Will RTHK be cut, restricted, or turned into a cheerleader for government policies? Or will it evolve into a subsidized but separate identity, similar to the BBC or Channel 4 in London?
One distinct difference between the climate of Hong Kong and that of mainland China, is freedom of expression, experts say.
"If our independence is harmed, it affects the overall climate of freedom here," says Francis Moriarty, who heads the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club press freedom committee, and is an RTHK staffer. "If RTHK is doing hard-hitting stories, others have to work hard, too. In a Hong Kong context, we are the canary in the mineshaft. If our independence is under attack, everybody's is under attack."
Last January brought an abrupt announcement that RTHK would be reviewed by a seven-member commission, appointed by Chief Executive Donald Tsang, which will report in September.
The opening page of the commission review suggests that public broadcasting is an "intrusion" into the market. Moreover, only private media figures are involved in the review, making the team something like a "fox guarding the henhouse," as one local journalist put it, since RTHK competes with private stations.
Moreover, despite the fact that salaries and funding have been frozen or cut since the late 1990s - and the station produces more hours of programming for lower cost - RTHK is being audited for the third time in five years, making it one of the most scrutinized agencies in Hong Kong. Emotions are running high in the newsroom, based in Kowloon, over an initial report last week stating that the media outfit has a "culture of noncompliance" with civil service regulations.
To be sure, supporters and critics alike say the station has been a political hot potato for a decade and needs reform. Dominica Siu King Lo, a former director of educational TV, thinks the audit report may force a "rebirth" along the lines of a corporate identity.
"The people who manage RTHK are not journalists, but professional bureaucrats," says Stephen Vines, a well-known media and business figure in the city. "If RTHK was allowed to be a freestanding, publicly supported station run by media professionals, things might improve. The issue isn't neutral. Powerful groups want the station to be a propaganda department."
Over the years, RTHK has been a familiar public voice. It also has had a cultural mission. It helped incubate bubbly Canto-pop music and spawn a generation of film directors. Its soap operas, like "Under Lion Rock," which depicted average Hong Kong families struggling in the 1970s, helped forge a strong city identity. It isn't uncommon on Sunday night to hear programs, like RTHK opera, playing in the red-and-white taxis that wind through the lighted hills of the city whose name means "fragrant harbor."
The station has eight channels that pump out Cantonese, English, and Mandarin programming. There is bilingual instruction, a channel for senior citizens, traffic, news, and a BBC rebroadcast - the latter having a sizeable audience in mainland China.
In the 1970s, RTHK started patterning itself after the BBC, which carries interview shows like "Hardtalk," and includes experts with wide- ranging views. Yet this has earned it the ire of powerful local factions that complain the station's proper job is to promote, not criticize, government initiatives. In 1998, a year after the British handover, Cheung Man-yee, RTHK's director for 20 years, was sent to a posh but nonetheless out-of-the-way post in Tokyo after saying publicly she feared that RTHK would be turned into a "mouthpiece" for the government.
Yet RTHK did carve out latitude to monitor the previous administration of Tung Chee-hwa, particularly during the SARS epidemic and the civil rights crisis created by the promotion of an "antisubversion" law called Article 23. Like many Hong Kong media, RTHK reporters ask tough questions in press conferences of the current Donald Tsang administration.
Some local studies show a BBC-style independence is what Hong Kong people desire. In a Chinese University study of 1,044 respondents, with a 3 percent margin of error, 80 percent felt "RTHK should bear the responsibility of monitoring the government and criticizing its policies."
Radio is popular in the city of 7 million, and throaty salty talk show hosts are prized and influential. In fact, three hosts at commercial stations had become so popular prior to the 2004 elections that they all resigned or fled the airwaves, citing threats and intimidation.
Albert Cheng, host of "Teacup in a Storm," said he left after his family was intimidated by a mainland Chinese official he knew who called him late one evening.
Under the terms of the British handover, Hong Kong was to be given a guarantee of noninterference in its affairs. Yet Beijing has taken a free hand in interpreting the Basic Law governing Hong Kong - something often pointed out by the broad range of civic, religious, and artistic groups in Hong Kong, of which RTHK is seen an integral part.
Last week, for example, one of the 1997 Basic Law drafters in China, Xu Chongde, told a legal seminar that "one man, one vote" would be possible in Hong Kong only when Hong Kong could assure Beijing that only "patriots would be elected." He also said that democracy was a flawed system since Hitler and Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian were both elected to high office.